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Issue 47 - The ancient ways

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 47
October 2009


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The ancient ways

Passing through Dunino on a damp and dreich day it is hard to imagine that the Ancient Druids choosing this dull and dark spot as a place to worship the sun. It is here though, among The Muirs of Fife, that Gaelic names survive, reminding us of faiths long forgotten and faraway worlds that preceded our own. Afarm called Pittan Druidh, (‘The Grave of the Druids’) and Dunynow or Dunino, (‘The Hill of the Seven Daughters’) both testify to the presence of early Celtic Priesthood in this village.

Heading towards Anstruther, Dunino is three miles south east of St. Andrews on the B9131. Opposite Bely Farm, the name a throwback to days when a stone circle stood here in reverence to the Sun God Bel, ruler of the Celtic Underworld, look for a track on the left hand side of the crossroads. The wooden sign here does not point towards the ‘Druid’s Den’ but to ‘Dunino Church’– a reminder that the Christian Church absorbed much of the Celtic religions.

Philosophers, astronomers and healers, the ancient Druids were the most learned people of their time. First known to exist around 4000BC, they believed that all truths might be gleaned from observation of the natural world without resorting to the supernatural for guidance.

By the 7th Century AD, Druidism was driven underground for fear of persecution by Christian Missionaries but to ensure continuity of belief, the Catholic Church turned Pagan Gods and Goddesses into Christian Saints and sacred wells into baptismal fonts.

With Presbyterianism came The Devil and the powers of darkness. In the second half of the seventeenth century, a young theology student, struggling to write a sermon met a clergyman on these muirs. After hearing of the student’s problem, the black clad stranger handed him a beautifully written sermon from his pocket. Fortunately, The Reverend Robert Blair, minister of the Kirk of the Holy Trinity in St. Andrews recognised this discourse as the work of The Devil. The student, realising his mistake , was overcome by terror. The Presbytery vowed to save him.

They wrestled for his soul in prayer until a storm broke out on the hill around Dunino and shook the little Kirk to its foundations. It was the Devil shrieking with rage as he was banished from Fife.

Near the church, a stone bridge stretches over the Pitmilly Burn. Here a traveller some hundred or more years ago missed the turning to the church and continuing around the hill, came upon a picturesque hamlet. At the doors of the cottages stood an old man in knee breeches and a woman in a white mutch. The village was ghostly still. Records of the time showed that there had been no village on the site in living memory.

Take care to turn left after the bridge, follow the track to a gravelled car park in front of the Manse. Here as late as 1846, a tabulated stone stood by the garden wall and was used to collect dew at Beltane.

There is nothing to be seen of this stone today and local belief is that it was used in the building of the church porch.

Achurch has stood on this site since 1240.

The present Church of Scotland building was erected in 1826 by James Gillespie Graham, the chancel and porch added by J. Jeffrey Waddell and Young in 1928. In the porch, around the stained glass window, are a few stones from Pagan times now consecrated with Knights Templar Tau crosses.

There are some who belief that in Masonic symbolism the ‘T’ cross marks the site of a hidden treasure.

There is a treasure in the graveyard at Dunino. Turning left out of the church, cut a diagonal path towards the west boundary wall where sits a 3ft high rectangular stone.

Coins left here for luck cover the uppermost face of this ninth century boulder, underneath is a crude seventeenth century carving of a sundial. Some people believe the stone is a sign of an early Christian community, others that it is a Druid altar.

The sun wheel or ‘Wheel of Taranis’ a Celtic Sun God, represents the solar calendar and the Celtic cross is derived from this ancient symbol.

To the north east of the churchyard lies Byrehills, where Alison Pierson gathered her healing concoctions under a full moon. By the Kenly Burn she met a man dressed in green who spirited her off to fairyland for seven years. It was a journey that would result in her being burned at the stake for witchcraft in1588.

Strathvithy also lies north and was once owned by Margaret Erskine, Mary Stuart’s jailor, often referred to as ‘The Lady of Lochleven’. The Castle of Strathvithy has long since disappeared, as has the Castle of Draffan that overhung the south side of the Kinaldy Burn. The foundation stones of a thirteenth century, nunnery were removed in 1815.

It is only a short walk down a woodland path through bluebells, snowdrops or daffodils depending on the time of year to the Bel Craig. Known as ‘The Pulpit’ this natural stone platform overlooks a deep gorge –‘The Druid’s Den’. At the edge of the crag sits a water-filled pothole, a footprint worn into it’s ancient stone. It the distant past rituals have taken place here, either human sacrifices or the inauguration of a Celtic chief or Ri.

For those who have brought their hopes and dreams with them, this is the place to leave them to prosper. Be careful what you ask for though, on the Bel Craig it is said, wishes always come true.

A steep stone stairway with a Celtic knot cut into the foot of the rock winds down into the grove. Unnaturally quiet, the stream trickles past a sandstone cliff into which is carved a ten-foot high Celtic cross. It may be a trick of the light but, from behind a gnarled oak tree, a dark face seems to cast a suspicious eye over intruders.

In the middle of the den, the branches of a prayer tree are laden with dream catchers, ribbons and beads left by visitors who come to worship in this sacred wood that never sees the sun’s rays.

In a secular world, both Catholicism and Presbyterianism have lost their powers, but it is obvious from the amount of anonymous gifts left here at ‘The Den’ that there are many who still share the Druid belief.

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